The effect of group membership on social behavior in young children
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The ability to deceive others is an early-emerging and socially-complex skill which has been consistently linked to other social outcomes, including theory of mind (i.e., understanding thoughts and emotions of others). This study used a minimal group paradigm to examine children’s willingness to deceive in-group versus out-group members across varied contexts (e.g., lying for personal gain; lying to spite). Forty-one children (24 males) aged 4-7 (M=6.1y, SD=1.2y) played a puppet in three versions of a sticker-hiding game: Self-Benefit condition (child could lie for personal gain), Other-Benefit condition (child could lie to give another puppet a sticker), and No-Benefit condition (child could lie to spite in-group or out-group members). Children additionally completed a battery of theory of mind tasks and a measure of verbal and non-verbal IQ. Our results indicated that children lied the most in the Self-Benefit condition and lied equally to in-group and out-group members in this condition. However, when the potential for self-gain disappeared, in-group bias emerged. In the Other-Benefit condition and in the No-Benefit condition, children engaged in more lie-telling to out-group members. Results suggest that lying behavior is sensitive to group membership only in certain social situations. Specifically, young children are able to flexibly apply a complex social skill (i.e., deception) based on group membership and task demands. Further, children’s desire to benefit themselves appears to trump in-group bias. Future research should examine alternate situations, such as lying to avoid punishment, to determine whether the context of the lie has a stronger effect on children, or if group membership overrides the desire to benefit oneself. Children’s understanding of lying and group membership has implications for education and intergroup relations throughout development.